Choosing to marry?
Most partners had not imagined entering into a formalised same-sex relationship or marriage before their current relationship. While several women had had previous committed couple relationships with men, and some had children in this context, only one had married a man in the past. Neil recounted that he had once dreamt of a life with a ‘wife and two kids and a nice house and a car’, but instead ended up with a ‘husband and two dogs’. Emily (125a), quoted below, who ‘always wanted’ to get married, had become accustomed to the reality she had grown up with – that marriage was only for heterosexual couples:
I never thought I would ever get married because I just thought there was no chance. I’m gay, I’m not gonna get married.
Irrespective of legal limitations or possibilities, some partners had not seen themselves as the marrying type, often on the basis of their family experiences. As Robert (202b) puts it: ‘[i]n my family, divorce is quite rampant. It wasn’t anything that I ever thought I would become involved in’. However, a few couples, who were together before civil partnership was legalised, had had religious blessings or humanist commitment ceremonies. On the whole, partners had only ever considered formalising a relationship within the context of their current one. This was variously linked to fact that civil partnership had only relatively recently become available, the troubled nature of their previous relationships or simply because they had found a partner who they were prepared to make a ‘permanent’ commitment to.
About half of the couples (14 female and 13 male) recounted that civil partnership seemed like a natural progression of their relationship. They often described it as the obvious next step in the relationship. The notion of civil partnership as a form a marriage allowed it to quickly become a commonly accepted step in sealing and displaying the couple’s commitment. For most, the appeal was enhanced by the fact that this was a civil expression of commitment, and not a religious one. As noted earlier, partners mostly claimed to have entered into civil partnership for love. However, the significance of social recognition was often implied when couples recounted that they did not want to be seen as ‘just two guys that live together’ or as ‘merely’ boyfriends and girlfriends. These ways of seeing same-sex partners clearly have adolescent connotations and partners themselves often wanted to be seen as a couple who were willing to take on mature commitments. Frazer (215a) and Todd’s (215b) story captures the essence of partners’ narratives of progression. They met in their early 20s at a point when both had moved away from home and were working full time. It did not take long before they were living together.
We wanted to get married because everything was going right for us. We both had pretty decent jobs […]. I had just got a job with [company name], but I was up to be promoted and stuff like that, and we had been approved a mortgage. Everything was just fitting into place. It was just part of a thing that we should really do because everything was going right for us.
While Giddens argues that marriage is becoming less about status recognition than a symbol of commitment, it does seem to be the case that
younger same-sex couples do see marriage as a marker of ‘mature’ social status. This may well be linked to the ways in which same-sex relationships and non-heterosexual identities have been historically construed as socially and sexually immature. As well as psych-discourse that has historically cast homosexual desires and relationships as stemming from stunted sexual development, discourse about gay men’s immature lifestyles (imagined to be focused only on pleasure) casts them as the antithesis of ‘responsible’ adults. As well as claims to mature status recognition, couples were also subject to seemingly innocuous banter about marriage and commitment, mostly from family or friends who, as Frazer (215a) recounts, kept asking ‘when are you guys gonna get married?’ For some couples, the slow drip effect of such banter could prompt a sense that the idea of getting married (or not) was something that should be entertained, if only to have an answer prepared for others. We will return to the question of why young couples decided to formalise their relationships later in this section. First we consider how a key convention of marriage was adopted and adapted by many same-sex partners: the proposal.
The ‘proposal’ was a critical feature of many marriage stories, and in some cases it was a critical event for the couple themselves. In this respect, it is worth distinguishing between prenegotiated proposals and surprise ones. In the prenegotiated proposal, couples had clearly signalled to each other their keenness or willingness to formalise the relationship. Explicitly or implicitly, both parties’ desire or willingness to enter into civil partnership had been agreed. In these cases, reservations, ambivalences or concerns had been worked through by the couple in advance of the proposal itself. The surprise proposal was a much more risky proposition, as it could potentially reveal one partner’s ambivalence about the assumptions that the other had made about future direction of the relationship.
Indeed, some partners who were proposed to narrated the event with a notable degree of ambivalence, and explanations of the decision to marry in the form of ‘I was asked’ or ‘being asked helped’ suggested they agreed to marry with relatively limited enthusiasm. On the one hand, such responses bear a striking resemblance to the aloofness that men show about marriage in heterosexual relationships when they claim to ‘do it for their’ wives (Lewis, 2001; Mansfield and Collard, 1988). On the other hand, in same-sex relationships (like many heterosexual relationships nowadays), ambivalence about ‘marriage’ can have many roots, both personal and political. In this context the surprise proposal could be a powerful act, as to reject it could have threatened to disrupt or even end the assumed shared reality of the couple. While some proposers were sensitive to this, the partner who was proposed to often seemed
under pressure to accept. The following extract from Moreen (119a) and Pam’s (119b) interview illustrates this. Moreen had intended to propose to Pam on a holiday, but ‘disaster’ broke out:
Pam: We were talking about marriage and I declared that
I didn’t believe in it and Moreen burst into tears because she was going to propose to me […] in a very romantic fashion [laughing].
Moreen: I had the rings. I’d been saving up [.] to buy this ring ’cause
it’s like made of recycled gold with an ethical stone [..] and I knew that Pam would like it and I’d kind of snuck out a ring and I’d got it measured and [it took] them ages to make it and then it had come and I finally had this ring so I [.] had it planned out and then we’re sitting on the train and she just announces this and I was just like ‘Oh!’ and I was so upset […] I think it’s the biggest spectacle I’ve ever made of myself in public […] just tears with embarrassment.
This couple did decide to marry a couple of months after this event. The part that Moreen’s efforts and devastation played in Pam’s overcoming of her objections to marriage are unclear. In the absence of obvious gender differences the subtleties of power involved in the proposal cannot be reduced to institutionalised gender power as such. But it would be naive to think that the absence of obvious gender differences meant that the interactions and decision-making within couple relationships are power – free. Proposal stories and proposals themselves were often handled with playful humour where partners teased each other about ‘playing hard to get’ and ‘winning over’. Humour could also involve the ‘play’ of power:
She cried when I asked her.
Oh, shut up [laughter].
I’m proud of that moment.
I finally gave into you [laughter].
While the surprise proposal had the power to put the suspecting partner on the spot, the playfully rehearsed proposal was deployed as defence against the powerful implications of a rejection:
Olga (126b): Well, I think the first time you say it as a joke to
protect yourself, just in case the other person is like, ‘Ha ha ha, how ridiculous’.
Mandy (126a): [laughs]
Olga: Um, but then when the other person goes, ‘Oh,
okay,’ then it becomes just, ‘Oh well, why not?’
Others, who did not have the right to stay in the UK because of their immigration status, were in a less structurally powerful position in relation to the proposal and in relation to the decision of if, and when, to formalise the relationship. Their commitments were also vulnerable to distrust and to public scrutiny and suspicion. Compromised immigration status could compromise the future of relationships, and this was the case for eight of our couples, three of whom met abroad and five of whom met in the UK when the non-European partner was on a work or study visit. Stacy (110a) and Theresa (110b), who met abroad, spent the first six years of their relationship living in two countries. The financial and emotional costs of this were not viable in the long term. Caroline (112a) and Edith (112b), who met in the UK, lived under the constant threat of being separated. While this caused a degree of emotional strain, their decision to enter into civil partnership caused a different kind of strain: their relationships became the subject of ‘public’ evaluation. On one occasion, Caroline was taken aside by her work supervisor. She rehearsed their conversation:
‘I believe congratulations are in order.’
‘Thank you very much.’
‘You’re not just doing this for immigration though are you?’
‘Well kind of yes, but you know, I love her too.’
‘Just making sure.’
While couples in this situation were prepared for questions that might be raised by immigration authorities, they were less prepared for the questioning and evaluation from well-meaning friends, family members or colleagues. Caroline, like the other partners in her situation, became attuned to the need to explain and validate their relationships with recourse to love. This was evident in the interviews we conducted with other couples in a similar situation, when partners like Jeremy (206b) explained their reasons for marrying:
It [his immigration status] wasn’t the only reason ’cause I mean obviously, you know, we love each other.
Trust and suspicion can came to the fore in relationships where marrying has a clear advantage for one partner. This made it impossible for the non-European partner to suggest marriage as a solution to their own insecure immigration status. Andrew (204a), for example, met Graham (204b) when his visa was due to expire in six months. While the relationship was getting serious, Andrew was hesitant to tell Graham about his immigration status. He eventually told him, but did not discuss it any further at this point. Graham told his friends who generally advised him to be careful. Graham did not share their suspicions, and knew Andrew would not propose:
I just knew that Andrew was never going to mention civil partnership because I knew that he would think that this is all about him staying in the country. So by Christmas I’d made a decision in my mind that I was going to raise civil partnership in January when we got back home, because I knew Andrew was never going to do it, so I knew it had to come from me.
The threat of being separated prompted partners like Andrew and Graham to enter into civil partnership before they would have done so otherwise, and two couples stated that they would not have done so if there were other ways of securing a partner’s immigration status.
While public debates about same-sex marriage are centred around the right to access couple and family ‘rights’, they presume love – the most intangible thing – to be the measure of an authentic relationship. This marks a shift in the ideology of ‘good’ marriages as being based in socio-economic compatibility to emotional compatibility. Yet, compatible socio-economic status is still a significant feature of marriage choices, and this was the case for our younger same-sex couples. Partners’ incomes (or in the case of students, their earning potential) were often broadly similar (for details and variances see Chapter 5), and while money is a complicated matter in relationships (see Chapter 5), financial security rarely featured as an explicit reason to formalise the relationship. However, the fact that about half the men and a much greater proportion of the women did not to enter into committed relationships with people who earned (or had the potential to earn) significantly less or more than them suggests that similar earnings and occupational status could contribute to the sense of a ‘good match’ (see Chapter 5). This is consistent with findings about heterosexual marriages that suggest partners are most likely to come from similar socio-economic backgrounds, although women still generally earn less than men.
In one exceptional case, the financial benefit to one partner explicitly influenced the decision to marry. In Amina (101a) and Josha’s (101b) case, civil partnership had a clear financial incentive for Amina, whose work permit restricted the areas in which she could work and thus her earning potential. After a long and sustained campaign by Amina to get Josha to agree to a civil partnership, Josha eventually capitulated. As Josha puts it:
I agreed because, […] I mean if that wasn’t the case I suppose we wouldn’t have got married, because I didn’t feel there was a need to set it in stone. Especially since I knew it was going to be temporary.
When Josha completes her studies, her family expects her to marry a man. However, from the story that she and Amina told, it is clear that she felt that she had little option but to agree to Amina’s proposal in the face of Amina’s persistent demands. Josha linked her own willingness to go along with Amina’s demands to the gendered expectations she (Josha) has of relationships: that having taken the more ‘feminine role’ she had little choice but to eventually go along with Amina’s plans. She may also fear that Amina will expose their secret life. The point is that Josha reluctantly entered into the civil partnership, and her circumstances certainly challenge the idea of marriage as a joint project, serving the needs of two partners (Giddens, 1992). Josha and Amina’s case provides a rather extreme example of power imbalances within same-sex relationships. For the vast majority of young same-sex partners, power relationships were far more subtle and dynamic (see Chapters 5-6), as may well be the case in young heterosexual ones.
Parenting also played a significant role in prompting some couples to formalise their relationship. Of the eight female couples who had children in their care, five formalised their relationship with parenting in mind. None of the male couples had children in their care, but Chung (224a) and Warren (224b) believed that marriage would improve their chances of being considered as adoptive parents. For female parents, the position of the non-biological parent was a primary concern. This was sometimes linked to the hostility of biological fathers, refusals to acknowledge non-biological parents as legitimate family members, or refusals by family members to acknowledge nonbiologically related children as ‘their own’. Kathryn (105a) and Louise (105b), who have one child and are expecting another, voiced fears about their parents’ possible claims over their children should one of them die. As Louise explains:
All of a sudden our families, which seemed supportive [could] suddenly start making decisions about ‘Oh I don’t know anymore, whether I’m quite so supportive, and actually that’s my Grandchild, not yours’ sort of, those sorts of scenarios we just wanted to tie […] belts and braces [around] the situation.
Despite the extent to which families of origin tended to accept same – sex parenting relationships, fears about the risks that given kin presented when it would matter most could still run deep. Same-sex partners are clearly not immune to the pressures of marrying for the sake of children. While some indicated they were happy to do so, their narratives suggested that the choice to enter into civil partnership was not a wholly free choice as such – they saw it as a necessity if they were to be fully recognised and ‘protected’ as parents and as a legitimate family.